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Impossible Things: Redefining Ability and Disability in Genre Fiction

“You left my dragon back there! He can’t fly on his own! He’ll drown!” — Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon 2

When Star Trek first appeared on TV in 1966, the decision was made to hide or disguise actor James Doohan’s missing finger. Although I couldn’t find a conclusive answer to whether the choice was Doohan’s or the producers’, it’s conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans that the shows’ creators felt that by the 23rd century, prosthetics would have advanced to the point where missing digits would be unthinkable.

By contrast, in 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, not only does the dragon protagonist have a disability (after part of his tail is shot off, he can only fly with a prosthesis operated by his human buddy) but the human protagonist, Hiccup, loses his foot at the end of the film (a plot change from the books) and has his own prosthesis going forward. The movie has received quite a lot of press for its positive depiction of a main character with a disability, and it’s true that this is definitely a step in the right direction. However, in thinking about depictions of characters with disabilities in genre fiction, I’m coming to the conclusion that (surprise!) we’ve still got a ways to go.

I’ll start off with praise for a few authors who are making a clear effort to increase representation of people with disabilities in their fiction. Both series I’ve read by Tad Williams (Otherland and Shadowmarch) feature characters with disabilities in main roles. And say what you will about George RR Martin’s problems with race and gender, he does a very creditable job of presenting characters with a range of physical, developmental and mental differences. His core cast includes people with dwarfism and paraplegia, as well as someone who’s an amputee; he also has a major supporting character and several minor ones with developmental disabilities, which is even rarer in fiction. These characters’ differences are part of how they interact with the world, but none of them has disability as their only character aspect.

Once you move outside these series, though, the field gets a little thin. While driving home last night, Husband and I spent 45 minutes trying to list other genre fiction characters with disabilities, and here’s the sum total of the list we came up with, arranged in buckets from roughly most- to least-problematic:

Fairly troublesome:

  • Jake Sully from James Cameron’s Avatar — becomes a paraplegic due to a war wound; spends the movie lamenting his lot and (it’s suggested) chooses to give up his human body at least in part so that he has the capacity to walk
  • Luke Skywalker from Star Wars — has a hand amputated and immediately replaced with an identical prosthetic

A little troublesome:

  • Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: TNG — blind from birth, but uses technology to “see” in a range that goes beyond that available to people with standard human vision. Which means that he does process the world differently, but also that he sees everything that others do.
  • Professor X from The X-Men — becomes a paraplegic due to an accidental bullet wound (at least, according to X-Men: First Class); uses a wheelchair ALMOST all the time (except for portions of the new movie Days of Future Past, but I’ll come back to that).

Fairly well-depicted:

  • Drusilla from Buffy/Angel — is portrayed as having unspecified mental illness because she was “driven insane” by Angelus before being turned into a vampire
  • Felix Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica — has a leg amputated late in the series due to injury
  • Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica — has an eye taken out late in the series during imprisonment
  • Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars — becomes a de facto cyborg after amputation of multiple limbs and being set on fire.
  • Toph Beifong from Avatar: the Last Airbender –– blind (presumably) from birth, uses her Earthbending powers to get around by feeling vibrations in the ground

When I got home last night, I thought of a few more characters to add to the list. There’s Nemo from Finding Nemo, with his asymmetrical pectoral fins; there’s River Tam from the Firefly/Serenity universe, whose treatment at the hands of the Alliance caused both physical and mental damage to her brain; there’s G’Kar from Babylon 5, another character who loses an eye before the end of his series; there’s Jerome Morrow from Gattaca, a paraplegic. But coming up with a list of genre fiction characters with disabilities is undeniably tougher than coming up with characters who embody other underrepresented identities. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, the history of genre fiction has many examples of the wrong ways to include people of diverse races, genders, and sexualities in your storytelling — but for the most part, characters with disabilities just aren’t there at all.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and I have a few theories about what might be going on. First and foremost, I suspect that even for those most committed to increasing diversity on any level, disability/ability is still a social identity that goes largely unconsidered. When I participated in a professional development workshop a few years ago where we discussed “increasing diversity among college and university faculty,” people talked about gender, race, and sexuality; those who remembered to include class background clapped themselves on the back for their conscientiousness. Growing up in a small, homogeneous New England city, I knew a few people of color, and a few people who identified as something other than heterosexual, but I had no friends with disabilities. I vaguely remember a child in my elementary school who walked with leg braces; there was a developmentally disabled boy in my middle school class who had an aide to help him through his day, and a girl who had difficulty walking because of cerebral palsy; and that was it. I suspect that for many able-bodied people, particularly those who live outside major metropolitan areas, people with disabilities don’t have a big impact on their everyday experience — and part of the reason for this, in classic vicious circle style, is because people with disabilities are still underrepresented in popular media.

I recently ran across Mayzoon Zayid’s TED talk about her experience as a Palestinian-American woman with CP trying to break into acting, and her discussion of the invisibility of people with disabilities made a real impression on me. As she puts it,

Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user… People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.

Of course, Zayid’s point is that when people with disabilities do appear in movies and TV shows, most often they are played by actors who don’t share their disability (see: every single one of the characters listed above, along with Forrest Gump, the wheelchair user Artie from Glee, and Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Raymond in Rain Man). However, I think a related problem is that (able-bodied) storytellers still tend to default to certain tropes when telling stories about people with disabilities. Author Susan Nussbaum captures this in an essay for The Huffington Post, where she says that as a person with a disability, she tends to “avoid books and movies with disabled characters in them” because

The vast majority of writers who have used disabled characters in their work are not people with disabilities themselves. Because disabled people have been peripheral for centuries, we’ve been shut out of the artistic process since the beginning. As a result, the disabled characters we’re presented with usually fit one or more of the following stereotypes: Victim, Villain, Inspiration, Monster. And the disabled character’s storyline is generally resolved in one of a few ways: Cure, Death, Institutionalization. It’s a well-worn formula that can be changed up in a number of ways, but it usually looks something like this: Disabled Victim + Self-involved non-disabled Protagonist = Cured Victim + Redeemed non-disabled Protagonist.

Basically,  Nussbaum argues that stories about a hero with a disability — who remains both the hero and disabled throughout the story — are still relatively rare.

The “cured” piece is one that I think genre fiction is particularly prone to, because part of the escapist nature of science fiction and fantasy stories is the idea that things can happen in those worlds that can’t happen in this one. I don’t believe that either the Star Trek writers or James Cameron and the rest of the Avatar team intended their message to be that people whose physical differences can’t be “fixed” are somehow doomed to live a miserable life — but when a TV show suggests that of course no one would opt to have nine fingers in the 23rd century, and that the cure for a paralyzed soldier’s depression is a new body that allows him to walk and run again, it’s hard not to go “hmm.” Given the raging real-world controversies around cochlear implants for deaf children and the effects of prenatal testing for Down Syndrome, I’m a little uncomfortable with any fictional world that suggests that people whose bodies or minds are in any way atypical will of course automatically be “fixed.”

The other piece of the “cured” trope, of course, is characters like Luke Skywalker (or How To Train Your Dragon‘s Hiccup) who have prosthetics that have no impact on the story or the character’s everyday life. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup runs and jumps and tumbles seemingly without a moment’s thought about the mechanical foot strapped to his leg: although I know that some prosthetic limbs give their wearers a huge amount of mobility, this did give me more than a moment’s pause. When working with human actors, I suspect at least part of the motivation for these choices is is not wanting to inconvenience the actor any more than necessary (or have to green-screen Mark Hamill’s hand away in every shot through the third movie). I wondered about this factor in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which presented what felt like a fairly flimsy excuse for why James McAvoy’s 1970s-era Professor X was able to walk around; I suspected it was primarily because the filmmakers wanted to include Xavier in action sequences, and doing so would have been much more difficult if they’d had to negotiate a 1970s-analog pre-ADA world.

And really, I think that’s the core of the trouble with ability/disability representation in genre fiction. Although the genres have opened up considerably in the last few decades, science fiction and fantasy stories are still expected to be stories about Big Damn Heroes: stories with swords and starships and big guns and powerful wizards. Our culture doesn’t think of people with disabilities as filling those roles; and if a protagonist interacts differently with the physical world — if Hiccup has to stop and adjust his foot before he can hop down off his dragon’s back — it will affect the way that hero swashbuckles, the same way it affects everything else.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that paradigm is ready for tweaking. I’ve mentioned before that my current novel project has a heroic role model whose physical differences make him quite unlike the “typical” hero/mentor figure. When I first conceived of the character this way, I found myself getting uncomfortable, the negative lizard-brain reaction described by Shawl and Ward in Writing the Other. My inner monologue went something like this: “No, Big Damn Heroes can’t have physical limitations! No one would take him seriously! No one would — except they can’t help but take him seriously. He’s the most fearsome warrior and most highly respected general in the world. …by gods, I have to write the character like this. I can’t pass up the opportunity.”

And so I will. And it’ll require rethinking some of the tropes about what heroic characters do and how they sound. And I think it’ll be interesting, and distinctive… and important. Because we need more diversity in our genres, and Jake Sully and Luke Skywalker and Geordi aren’t going to cut it forever. All of us genre authors talk a good talk about using our imaginations to reinvent the world: let’s go out there and imagine some different heroes.

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  1. The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon | Sociologist Novelist

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